The discovery by anthropology professor Julia King and her students came just months after Jordan was informed by the school’s archivist that St. Mary’s College, which was founded in 1840, had once owned enslaved people. The news was heartbreaking, said Jordan, who is Black and has led the college since 2014.
“The history of St. Mary’s College has always been very forward-thinking and relatively progressive and somehow, in my heart of hearts, I had hoped we had no hand in slavery,” Jordan said in an interview Thursday. “When I discovered that, I was sad and depressed.”
After the artifacts, including clay pipes and broken pottery, were uncovered, Jordan said she immediately knew she wanted to do something to honor these individuals whose existence had long been covered by dirt and hidden from history’s lens.
She began working with administrators, professors and students as well as residents and government officials of historic St. Mary’s City and nearby communities to agree on a suitable memorial project to pay tribute to the people who had lived and toiled in captivity all their lives. The fruit of that four-year-long effort was realized Saturday morning when the college unveiled “From Absence to Presence: The Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland.”
The memorial, which takes the form of an enclosed cabin on which poetry and the names of enslaved people are cut through metal panels, sits on the soil where the artifacts were found. At night, a light inside the cabin spills the words and names onto the surrounding lawn, an ethereal effect that allows the stories of these lost lives to finally emerge from the shadows. Behind the cabin are the new stadium and sports fields whose site was relocated after the discovery was made.
In Saturday’s virtual ceremony hosted on the school’s website, students, school officials, local community leaders and politicians spoke about the project and their hopes that it will be a fertile site for reflection and resolve. Writer and historian Jelani Cobb delivered the keynote address.
The project honors “the triumph of the human spirit over the cruelty of slavery” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and “provides a new and meaningful way for Marylanders to learn about the complex legacy of slavery in our state.”
The speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Adrienne A. Jones, U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, and U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, all Democrats, also delivered remarks. All but $50,000 of the project’s $550,000 cost was paid for by the state of Maryland.
Baltimore Mayor-elect Brandon Scott, a 2006 graduate of the school, said having the memorial at St. Mary’s is part of a much broader effort that America needs to engage in to address its past.
“We are still dealing with the fallout of enslavement of my ancestors, the trauma that is passed down through generations,” Scott said in his remarks. The memorial can help provide “understanding that the situations that African Americans live in today’s United States of